A more credible Opposition could have made Bihar’s ruling National Democratic Alliance (NDA) coalition nervous about returning to power.
Bihar Chief Minister Nitish Kumar faces a 15-year anti-incumbency. There is also anger at the mismanagement the Janata Dal (United)-Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) government has wrought on the state and its people in its handling of the migrant crisis and the spread of COVID-19.
However, the results of the Bihar assembly elections, dates for which the election commission announced on September 25 as farmer protests raged in several parts of the country, including in Patna, seem a foregone conclusion.
Initial opinion polls suggest Kumar remains far more popular than the leader of the opposition in Bihar assembly, Rashtriya Janata Dal (RJD)’s Tejashwi Yadav.
At 30, Yadav should have been the natural leader at least of Bihar’s youth — after all, an estimated half of Bihar’s electorate of 72.97 million is below 39 years of age, and 17 million below 29. With Kumar the Bihar CM since 2005, most young voters have faint memories of the chief ministerial tenures of Tejashwi Yadav’s parents – Lalu Prasad and Rabri Devi from 1990 to 2005. However, Kumar has taken it upon himself, and with vengeance, to remind voters of the alleged ‘jungle raj’ of the Lalu Prasad years.
Ironically, several leaders in the Congress and the Left parties — which are allies of the RJD — feel it would be a blessing in disguise for Bihar if the party once helmed by Lalu Prasad gets decimated in the upcoming elections. This is because it is only if the RJD is reduced to a fringe party that political space will open up for the emergence of a credible Opposition in the state — an opposition that speaks a language that is universal and is not a prisoner to caste loyalties.
The reasons for such a line of thinking is because the RJD’s influence and vote share has consistently declined in the last 15 years. Since the October 2005 assembly polls, the RJD’s vote share has dipped from 23.45 percent to 18.8 percent in 2010 assembly polls, and further to 15.36 percent in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections. In the 2010 assembly polls, the RJD could only win an abysmal 22 seats (out of a total 243 seats) with a vote share of 18.8 percent. That it could retain its vote share of 18.4 percent and win as many as 80 seats in the 2015 assembly polls was mostly because of its alliance with Kumar-led JD(U).
There was a time when Lalu Prasad commanded the support of not just Yadavs and Muslims, but also other extremely backward castes and the Dalits. Not anymore. The RJD is now seen as a party exclusively of 31.3 percent of Bihar’s electorate (14.4 percent of Yadavs and 16.9 percent Muslims).
Even here, significant sections of Muslims vote for JD(U) and Yadavs are gravitating towards the BJP, which has in its ranks such Yadav leaders as Union minister Nityanand Rai and state cabinet minister Nand Kishore Yadav. Former Lok Sabha MP Pappu Yadav, who is campaigning indefatigably for his Jan Adhikar Party, will also nibble at RJD’s support base.
Moreover, until now Tejashwi Yadav has failed to inspire confidence. His detractors point to his poor academic record as something that will not inspire the youth. The local unit of the Congress is resisting the RJD’s proposal that Tejashwi Yadav should be declared the chief ministerial candidate of the Mahagatbandhan. A Nitish Kumar vs Tejashwi Yadav is considered a no-contest.
Ally Rashtriya Loktantrik Samata Party (RLSP) chief Upendra Kushwaha, who is upset at not being offered respectable number of seats as part of the seat-sharing talks and looks set to sever ties, said on September 24 that “Tejashwi Yadav is not in a condition to fight against Nitish Kumar”.
It is also common knowledge that all isn’t well in the RJD’s ruling clan. While patriarch Lalu Prasad Yadav is in a Ranchi jail serving time for corruption, his eldest son Tej Pratap and Tejashwi Yadav do not see eye to eye. There are a dozen ticket aspirants from within the family.
The three-phased polls will take place in Bihar on October 28, November 3 and 7, with the counting of votes on November 10, a day after Tejashwi Yadav turns 31.
The likelihood of the BJP-led NDA celebrating a joyous Diwali and Chhat Puja is more than the results turning out to be a happier than usual birthday for the young RJD leader.
For the BJP, Bihar offers the opportunity to buck the trend of losses since its win in the 2019 Lok Sabha elections — in the assembly polls in Jharkhand and Delhi, and moth-eaten wins in Haryana and Maharashtra. A victory in Bihar will help the BJP shrug off the loss of important allies such as the Shiv Sena and the Shiromani Akali Dal and proclaim it to be a vindication that farmers support its farm bills.Archis Mohan is a Delhi-based senior journalist. Views are personal.